Campaign Bootcamp: Module 3 - market research

In Module 2 I looked at the characteristics of a ‘good’ goal. In Module 3 I am exploring ways to get to know your target audience better.

Why is this important?

Like setting a ‘good’ goal, market research is another building block that boosts your chances of having a successful campaign.

If you’ve got clear about your goal, it often involves persuade someone to do something. The next stumbling block you’re faced with, is figuring out what sort of message will do this best.

Market research is a way to get clear on this.

Will I really benefit from doing market research?

In my experience, only larger charities tend to do market research. I think there are some common barriers that prevent smaller organisations from using it - which is a pity, as it can significantly improve your results. And when time and money are precious, it’s particularly important to do what you can to get the best results from any marketing you do manage to do.

I’m going to tackle some of the key barriers below - in the hope that I can try and persuade you that yes, market research can really help you plan an effective campaign!

I’m not sure how it would help

It’s true that it is possible to get a bit lost in putting together a market research plan … and end up collecting information that doesn’t seem to help you. To make sure that your market research gives you valuable info, it can help to structure it around key questions and usually the key things you’re looking to understand are variants on:

  • who your audience(s) is/are

  • what their views are

  • why they might be motivated to do what you want to do

  • and why not - it can be helpful to uncover limiting problems/barriers too

  • when is best to communicate with them (time of day, season of the year, life stage etc)

For example ..

You might be an environmental charity with a database of supporters who make regular standing order donations in return for ‘membership’ and a quarterly newsletter. Subscriber income is important - but your numbers (and income) are static/declining, rather than growing. You want to do a campaign to attract more subscribers:  what messages should you use?

A quick and easy way to start might be by doing a bit of data research.

Does the data have useful info like:

  • Postcode

  • Date they started contributions

  • Any info on type of person (do they pay a family, OAP, student or adult rate?)

Sorting your database by postcode might show you that you have a block of donors who live near nature reserves you manage: are they supporters because of their attachment to places you work in?

You could ring a few (assuming you have permissions in place) and thank them for their support, explain you’re doing a bit of research into why people joined, and ask them to tell you the story of why and when they joined, and what their views are. [Top tip: ask them if you can record them, and use quotes in future marketing; ask  if they mind if you ring them back if you need any more info. Be sure to send a thank you note.]

After doing 5 to 10 interviews, you might find you’ve done enough to see a bit of a pattern emerge. For example you might find that supporters fall into different groups: perhaps - younger families who joined because they enjoyed a family activity programme; knowledgeable naturalists who appreciate your habitat work; a few local businesses whose employees participate in an annual ‘clear up’ volunteer day.  

This would give you info on some of the different ‘whos’ and ‘whys’ as a result of your work. It might be enough to allow you to pick a group you feel offers most potential as offering the easiest route to increasing your income.

This work might show you that a good campaign to run might be to fund more family activity days in holidays, using this as a way to build relationships and encourage more young families to sign up as supporters.

Or, if you are after the naturalists, the focus of your next campaign might be to think of ways to tell more local people of the value of your habitat work. Perhaps a series of seasonal articles in the local paper, local posters, talks or posts using local facebook groups. Or, better still, ask your existing fans to share what they notice when visiting your reserves through their own networks, and encourage others to join.

At this stage, you could do some additional research to check out your emerging assumptions: you might run a focus group, some more follow up phone calls or a small postal or esurvey.

This sort of approach, using a variety of methods, should enable you to get to a who, what, why and perhaps when for the target audience for your campaign.

But we don’t need to because we already know what our audience think..!

Sometimes it can certainly feel like this is true,  particularly for small charities who’ve been working with people for a long time. But if it is true, it’s likely that your existing campaigns will be working fabulously. If that’s so … you need read no further ;)

In fact, the more in touch you are with what your audience, the more you tend to appreciate that it’s complicated. The more you know, the more you are likely to feel there’s a lot more you could learn. If you are comfortable that you already know enough, I’d wager you might be in danger of being a bit complacent.

Why not try testing your out your views by predicting what people will say if you ask them, and compare that with what they do say?

Getting to know your audience better is never wasted time. Even if you know them well, market research can help give you some new great quotes to use in your publicity; it can help you connect even more with the ‘supporters-eye-view’ of your organisations and it can help you to re-inforce you relationships with them. The more you understand your audience, the more precisely targeted your messaging can be, and the more effective its likely to be.

OK - but if we do it, what’s the best way to do it?

There are many, many ways to carry out research. And the advent of social media has generated a whole lot more - nowadays some charities can just post a survey in their facebook groups or tweet a question to get instant - and free! - feedback. It doesn’t have to be super-hard.

There are a few suggestions in the example above, but here are a few more examples of different techniques and the context I’ve used them in with charities which might give some useful ideas.

  • guided conversation phone interviews - as above with the supporters. I’ve also used this approach to get the who, what, why info on commissioners to help a charity improve the ways they described their newly configured service in tenders (see more info below).

Good for: getting in depth information quite quickly; for audiences geographically dispersed and time poor. Quite quick to do, once appointments booked.

  • 1 to 1 in-depth interviews in person -  for example, I did a series of interviews for the Cathedral Archer project with their clients to get them to describe their experience of the charity and the impact it made on their lives. I’ve also used this approach to help capture mental health service user journeys for the NHS.

Good for: getting in depth info from people who might not open up on the phone on in writing. Works best when the audience are within easy reach of a base. More time consuming.

  • esurvey - for example, of local branches of a national charity to help HQ figure out how to embed national guidelines in local practice

Good for: involving large numbers of participants, scattered over a wide area where the topic can be explored in survey format. You need email addresses and the know-how to extract data from spreadsheets. Lots of great free guidance on how to do this well available in software like

  • focus groups - for example of police, youth groups and providers to unpick the underlying perception causes of anti-social behaviour and messages to address it; or to explore VolCom attitudes to Sheffield City Council Voluntary Sector Contract.

Good for: topics where engagement is high enough to mean people will turn up; relatively quick way to get feedback / discussion from a sizeable group in one go.

  • community-wide postal surveys to identify local views of community facilities, play areas and open spaces for local housing associations;

Good for: similar to esurveys - but postal surveys need knowledge (& relevant permission) of the address (which local housing associations have). Likely to get a low response rate unless you can follow it up (hand deliver it, offer free return postage, offer a prize drawer etc)

  • art and sport projects - for example with children to capture their view of how ‘safe’ they feel in their neighbourhood or to introduce visits between schools from within different communities.

Good for: a better way to engage and involve some harder to reach groups who, nonetheless, have important insights into key issues. Relatively quick to do and can involve good numbers. Needs a well structured activity and experienced facilitators to run it and capture useful data from the exercise.

  • longitudinal studies - for example repeat visits with selected youth groups over a 5 year period to see how they’ve changed as a result of funding.

Good for: tracking change over time; enabling reflection and adjustment throughout the lifetime of a project/initiative. Not quick to do!


I hope this has encouraged you to think about using some research when designing your next campaign. Some key points made were:

  • Market research is useful for helping you to design effective campaigns

  • It’s the stage between setting your desired goal (Module 1) and coming up with a message that works (Module 3).

  • It can help you get clear on who you want to engage, what they think and why they might be motivated/put off to do what you need them to do (subscribe, donate, join, sign up …)

  • You can pick from a range of approaches - choose the one that you find easiest/quickest to do. Mix methods up (ie survey + focus group) where that helps you get results quicker.

I’ve included a further case study below for info.

The next blog post will be on Campaign Bootcamp Module 4: messages with a purpose.

Case study

Increase success rate for tenders -  using telephone interviews and guided conversations

The Stroke Association offer specialist support for people at risk of, or recovering from, strokes. Some of these are commissioned as part of the local patient pathway for strokes. Income through these contracts is important.

In response to changes in national guidelines for stroke care, the charity undertook some remodelling of their service design. They wanted a better understanding of how they could present their new ‘offer’ to local commissioners to demonstrate that it met the revamped guidance.

As commissioners are very hard to get hold of I designed a guided conversation approach and booked 20 minute ‘slots’ with existing commissioners to take them through it on the phone. The phone calls were recorded and the transcripts typed up. I then analysed the key messages and summarised them in a presentation for the Board.

The results confirmed that although commissioning practice varied across the country, Commissioner feedback suggested there was scope to sharpen up the way their services were presented to demonstrate that they delivered on current commissioning priorities.

This research is time consuming to do! But reveals rich information - including quotes that could be included in future promotional materials - and helped to strengthen relationships between the charity and key commissioners.

Helpful tools:

  • want to know how you can record a phone call? Youtube has some suggestions:

  • calendly - take some of the hassle out of booking appointments by making it easy to offer people the chance to book an appointment with you

  • transcription services:

  • qualitative analysis: tips on how to analyse interview transcripts to find themes

Sophy Hallam